Opinion: A Flexible Accessory Dwelling Unit Program Is a Win-Win for Everyone

I am a 27-year resident of Montgomery County. I’m also executive director of the Housing Initiative Partnership Inc., a nonprofit housing developer and counseling agency serving families in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. At HIP, we counsel homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages, renters who can’t find apartments they can afford, and young couples who can’t afford to buy homes.

HIP’s board has taken a position in favor of Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Reimer’s legislation — Bill ZTA 19-01 — that attempts to amend the current accessory dwelling unit law to make it more streamlined and useful to potential homeowners. A recent series of articles have been critical of the councilman’s efforts to amend the current law. I must disagree with the criticisms that have been raised about Reimer’s bill.

The amendments to the existing accessory dwelling unit law as proposed are common-sense changes that will encourage broader compliance and ensure higher quality rentals that meet all life safety requirements.

While ADUs will not solve our housing problems, we believe these sensible changes will encourage more homeowners who want to stay in their homes to create licensed rental options that can add to our housing supply without requiring new county infrastructure. Without these changes, homeowners will continue to create illegal and often substandard apartments to circumvent what is currently a very restrictive law.

Yes, Montgomery County must spend more on code enforcement to crack down on illegal and substandard apartments. But encouraging more homeowners to convert their homes legally through licensing should go a long way toward enforcing the code.

I do not believe we will ever see more than a handful of ADUs on any given block of single-family homes. There simply aren’t that many homeowners who want to convert their homes, or houses that can meet the ADU requirements, even as amended.

No one is forcing homeowners to convert their single-family homes. This legislation is intended simply to give homeowners the option to create an accessory dwelling unit that can help meet housing expenses.

My husband and I own a home in an older neighborhood of modest homes in Bethesda that is walking distance to Metro. Our neighborhood is facing ongoing pressure from teardowns and replacements with very large single-family homes, making my neighborhood even more expensive and out of reach for low- and moderate-income families. These teardowns have a much bigger impact on housing costs than ADUs ever will.

It is well documented that access to higher quality schools is a key indicator for academic success. Locking all but the wealthiest families out of these schools by discouraging other housing types is the new version of redlining, where we create enclaves of higher-income households that limit other families’ opportunities.

We know Montgomery County is facing a housing crisis, with ever more expensive housing locking out working families from transit-rich neighborhoods and good schools, which include workers we need in order to attract employers to our region.

The majority of Montgomery County is zoned single-family residential. We don’t want to lose the character of these neighborhoods, but limiting their use means smaller and smaller households having access to larger and more expensive homes.

We think that a flexible ADU program is a win-win for everyone:

  • ADUs allow a variety of households earning a range of incomes to live side-by-side with access to transit, schools and jobs.
  • ADUs allow more residents to live close to transit and jobs in older close-in neighborhoods, reducing sprawl by lowering the pressure on new construction in far-flung parts of the county.
  • ADUs enable seniors aging in place to afford to stay in their homes by bringing in rental income.

My husband and I will be facing a decision in a few years when we retire. We cannot afford to remain in our home with a mortgage and will need to downsize, either by leaving Montgomery County altogether or by renting out our walk-out lower level for income.

Some in our neighborhood have illegally converted their homes with in-law apartments. Our next-door neighbor is actually converting an ADU legally, under the current law. While I am glad they are following zoning and building codes, this means we will be unable to do the same thing since we’re within 500 feet of their home.

Bill ZTA 19-01 is common-sense legislation that can create more housing opportunities without the layout of significant county resources. ADUs can offer more options for both owner-occupied homeowners and renters looking for homes in a tight market.

I ask those who object to the bill to reconsider their objections to these proposed changes. They will provide more options for both owner-occupied homeowners and renters looking for homes in a tight market. And they will not have any dramatic impact on the appearance or quality of life in single-family neighborhoods.

— Maryann Dillon

The writer is executive director of Housing Initiative Partnership Inc.

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